Some call it the Run for the Roses. Others refer to as The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports. The writer Hunter S. Thompson even famously tagged it “Decadent and Depraved.” No matter what you call it, the Kentucky Derby – May 4 this year – is one of the oldest (held since 1875), biggest (160,000-plus attend) and richest (the winner gets a cool $2 million) sporting events in the world. And it’s remarkably easy to take part in. If you know how.
The Kentucky Derby is a 1.25-mile race for 3-year-old thoroughbreds, at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Ky., the first Saturday of May, which is usually the eighth of 10 races.
If you plan to overnight in Louisville, be prepared to spend more on a hotel room and make your reservations early. If you want to save your bankroll for Derby day (or the trip is a last-minute whim), you can usually find a room in one of the Kentucky towns within a couple hours’ drive of Churchill Downs, including Elizabethtown, Bardstown and Shepherdsville to the south; Shelbyville and Frankfort to the east; and Sellersburg and La Grange to the north.
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If you’re new to the Derby experience, the Oaks (a race for top fillies) is well worth it the day before. With fewer crowds, it gives visitors a chance to explore the Churchill Downs grounds and even see the horses and jockeys in person on their way back to the paddock area.
There are plenty of places to park, including on the lawns of area residents, which start at $20 and get more expensive the closer to the track you get. There also is parking at Cardinal Stadium for $15 and the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center for $8 with shuttle service to the downs. If you want to park at Churchill Downs, parking is sold in advance and reserved – and expensive ($146). Or, if you don’t want to drive at all, a taxi will drop you off on Oaks and Derby days, but the lines for taxis after the races can be as long as some of the races.
The infield: General admission tickets are $40 in advance, $50 the day of the Derby. In 2012, a mint julep set you back $11, but you get to keep the glass. (Tip: Discarded souvenir glasses can be found where you least expect them, including in the restrooms.) Infielders can bring food, tents, chairs and coolers. Food is available on the infield, but it can get pricey, especially if you want an extra julep.
If you don’t have a tent, be sure to wear sunscreen and bring rain gear. Regardless of the forecast: It will be sunny and it will be muddy.
There are certain sections of the infield that can get more rowdy than others – Turn 3 is typically for the more youthful crowd, while Turn 1 is a bit more family friendly (look for me there).
Infielders can catch a blurred glimpse of the race but also can watch on large screens positioned throughout infield.
A list of what you can and can’t bring is here: kentuckyderby.com/visit/security-information.
The grandstands: If you feel like dressing up a little more (and paying a little more), grandstand tickets cost anywhere from $300 to $2,000 or $11,000 for the clubhouse.
Grandstanders have more of a chance to see the horses in person and less of a chance of getting muddy (but less of a chance of seeing crazy costumes, hats and hairstyles).
Derby packages are also available, which include tickets, transportation and lodging and can be found here: derbybox.com/Kentucky-Derby-Packages.htm.
If you don’t want to go to the Oaks, the Friday before the Derby is a great opportunity to explore Bourbon Trails. The traditional Bourbon Trail takes you through the rolling hills of Kentucky to visit the distilleries that produce the brands, including Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam and Four Roses. The Urban Bourbon Trail takes you into the heart of Louisville to some of its best eateries and bars for samples of the region’s iconic drinks.
If you choose the more scenic trail, be sure to double check on the opening and closing hours and tasting times to plan your route accordingly. Details: www.kybourbontrail.com.
Be sure to pick up a Bourbon Trail passport, available at all the participating distilleries. Once you have visited all of the trail’s distilleries, send it in for a free T-shirt.
If you choose the Urban Trail, remember that a few of the spots are outside Louisville and you might need to drive or catch a cab. Details: http://bit.ly/ZxDBXW.
The Urban Trail includes a passport – on paper or on the smart phone app. You can pick up your free passport at the Visitors Center (4th and Jefferson streets in downtown Louisville) or at any of the participating stops (just ask your server). You can also download an electronic passport using the iPhone or Android app.
As with the original Trail, you can earn a free T-shirt and official Citizen of Bourbon Country certificate if you visit six of the participating locations.